Listening to (and Learning From) Criticism
Criticism can never be a science: it is, in the first place, much too personal, and in the second, it is concerned with values that science ignores. The touchstone is emotion, not reason. We judge a work of art by its effect on our sincere and vital emotion, and nothing else.
— D.H. Lawrence
A person who publishes a book willfully appears before the populace with his pants down.
— Edna St. Vincent Millay
I concluded last week’s blog by saying I trusted that readers new to HIGH CRIMES (being rereleased in paperback on March 1) would let me know whether the story still holds up, 13 years after its original publication. Until I wrote that sentence, it hadn’t really occurred to me: people will write. While I hope most of that feedback will be positive, some readers will need to let me know about parts of the book that didn’t work for them.
I read these emails, just as I read my reviews. Even if a reader is writing to criticize, the criticism means that the book made an impact, that the reader cared enough to want the story or the characters to go a certain way, and be disappointed if they didn’t. In this day and age, when readers are busy and distracted and have so many demands on their time, I’m honored when readers take the time to write to me — even if they’re writing with bad news.
I used to assume that any writer who claimed not to read reviews was lying. Over the years I’ve met a handful of authors whose claims I believe, but I would never be able to follow their example. I’m not that strong; I want to know what people think. I pay attention to feedback. While all feedback isn’t equally valuable, I’ve learned to recognize the criticisms that ring true, and appreciate feedback that shows me ways to improve my writing.
Getting feedback from HIGH CRIMES is going to be a challenge, because I believe — I hope — I’ve learned a lot since I wrote that book, in the late 1990s. While I’m proud of HIGH CRIMES, and I’m grateful for its positive reviews, I believe I’m a better writer now than I was 13 years ago. Some part of that is due to the feedback HIGH CRIMES received when it was first published.
I discuss the art of processing feedback at greater length here, but today I’ll highlight one piece of advice I’ve found especially useful: pay attention to comments you get from more than one reader. The rule of three applies: if three readers ask me something about a character or a plot point, I need to fix something.
What’s frustrating, of course, is that once the book is on the shelf, my ability to fix anything is limited. But I’ll note the feedback and remember it for next time. No work ever reaches a state of perfection, but at least I can try for new flaws with every book.
Rediscovering HIGH CRIMES
Counting down to the paperback reissue of HIGH CRIMES, I’ve been looking at the book again, for the first time in a while. HIGH CRIMES first appeared in 1998, after all, and I’ve written six novels since then (with a seventh now in progress). I’ve seen the movie more recently than I’ve reread my own book; the movie shows up on cable pretty regularly, while the book just sits on my shelf and waits to be taken down again.
You can’t ask an author “Which book is your favorite?” because it’s like asking a parent to name his or her favorite child. Easy enough when you have only one, but I’ve got 10, soon to be 11 (books, not children). I have to do what parents of large families do, and identify specific things about each book that I’m particularly fond of, or proud of.
It takes time to write a book. Revisiting my books feels a bit like time travel, especially as I look over the pages of acknowledgments. HIGH CRIMES, set in the world of national security and military courtrooms, required a lot of research. It would not have been possible without the help of dozens of experts who shared their knowledge about everything from surveillance technologies to courts-martial. Reading my acknowledgments feels like paging through a yearbook, as I remember all of these people, several of whom became lasting friends.
HIGH CRIMES, for those of you unfamiliar with the book or the movie, is the story of Claire Heller Chapman (in the film, Claire Kubik), a Harvard law professor and criminal defense attorney with a beautiful six-year-old daughter and a husband, Tom, who’s almost too good to be true. As Claire, Tom and Annie finish a celebratory dinner in a downtown Boston shopping mall, federal agents show up to arrest Tom for murder, saying he’s been a fugitive from justice and the U.S. military for 13 years. Nothing Claire believes about her life may be true — but she believes in her husband, and will marshal all the resources at her disposal to defend him. That ultimately includes taking on his defense herself.
So which piece of HIGH CRIMES am I most fond and proud of? It has to be the characters of Claire and Annie. Claire’s one of only two female protagonists I’ve created — the other is FBI agent Sarah Cahill, heroine of THE ZERO HOUR — and I still love her, 13 years later. She’s smart, strong, loving and brave, but she’s also a flawed human being. She does things she knows she shouldn’t (including smoking after she’s quit, a habit that seems downright shocking in this decade). She’s obstinate, even when it doesn’t serve her, and at times she’s downright reckless. In the end, though, she draws on her extraordinary resources to do whatever it takes to protect what she loves most. HIGH CRIMES is dedicated to my own wife and daughter, and while Claire and Annie are fictional characters, the women in my life played major roles in creating them.
I’ll be interested to hear from new readers about how the story elements of HIGH CRIMES hold up, 13 years after its original publication. HIGH CRIMES was written seven years after the first Gulf War, three years before the September 11 attacks, and six years before the disclosures of abuses at Abu Ghraib. Are the crimes Tom stands accused of less shocking now than they were 13 years ago? I don’t think so. In fact, I hope not. I hope the characters and story feel as strong to new readers today as they did to me 13 years ago. But I trust readers will let me know.
Giveaways of paperbacks and DVDs of HIGH CRIMES will continue between now and March 1. Subscribe to the newsletter, “like” the Facebook fan page, and follow me on Twitter for chances to win!
Why Is a Raven Like a Writing Desk?
Why is a raven like a writing desk?
— The Mad Hatter, Alice in Wonderland
Lewis Carroll doesn’t give us an answer to this question, but one look at my own desk supplies an answer: both ravens and writing desks (mine, at least) collect shiny things.
Ravens’ tendency to snatch up things that catch their eye and hide them for later makes them natural role models for writers. My desk is full of treasures and distractions, although everything on it is something I really need: my computer, of course; two monitors, so I can look at more than one thing at once; my favorite pens; my hourglass, to measure out uninterrupted writing time; my beloved Blackwing pencils, for marking up manuscripts; and the latest addition, my Batphone, because you never know when Gotham might need saving.
But I’m in good company. View this slideshow of famous writers’ desks.